Businesses are growing increasingly worried about the risk of company laptops overheating and catching fire.
Millions of people are now working from home since the start of the coronavirus crisis and there is always the danger the lithium ion batteries that power them can go into what’s known as thermal runaway – and if a laptop catches fire then it will give off toxic fumes due to the plastics and chemicals inside.
London Fire Brigade attends on average 24 fires each week that have been started by batteries, chargers or cables.
Telltale signs that a battery is going into thermal runaway is if it hisses or the laptop starts to bulge.
Thermal runaway happens when one cell in a battery overheats it can produce enough heat – up to 900°C (1652°F) – to cause adjacent cells to overheat. This can cause a lithium battery fire to flare repeatedly even to the point of flames shooting out of the side. The fires can be very unpredictable. Even after the fire in the device seems to be out there may be damage to a battery cell that can cause the fire to re-ignite and they can flare up again even 10 minutes later.
Potential causes include manufacturing defects within the lithium battery or cheap lithium batteries and chargers that fail to meet safety standards. In worst case scenarios the flames can set homes and offices on fire.
Over the years several manufacturers such as Sony and Samsung have recalled millions of batteries because of potential explosions caused by manufacturing defects.
So what can be done to deal with overheating laptops, mobile phones, iPads and other personal electronic devices (PEDS) powered by lithium batteries?
Thermal runaway in PEDs has long been a serious concern on aircraft which is why many airline companies use AvSax fire mitigation and containment bags.
AvSax are the world’s best-selling aircraft fire containment bags by far and are now on more than 15,373 aircraft operated by 80 airline companies. They have been used 32 times to deal with emergencies since the start of 2017 and every time they have been deployed the aircraft has been able to complete its journey safely with no need to divert or make an emergency landing.
AvSax won the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the UK in 2018 and were designed by Environmental Defence Services Ltd based in Yorkshire, UK.
Its managing director says businesses are now buying AvSax to deal with thermal runaway problems in laptops and other personal electronic devices on the ground – especially in offices.
EDS managing director Richard Bailey said: “We have just been asked about fire containment bags for a customer who has some laptops that have started to swell. Anyone who has seen videos of fires in laptops and personal electronic devices will be shocked to see the fire’s intensity and its capacity to cause considerable fire damage – especially if it spreads – but far more important is the danger to staff and the importance of doing effective risk assessments.
“Overheating laptops can be put into AvSax fire containment bags as a precaution and if they then cool down the laptop and all the important information on it can be saved. The battery will of course need replacing with one recommended by the manufacturer.”
Why are lithium batteries used to charge millions of electronic devices ranging from toys to laptops?
Lithium make ideal rechargeable batteries as it is the lightest of all metals yet can hold the highest amount of energy for longer battery life. They are also quick to recharge. According to Apple, lithium-ion batteries are able to charge to 80% capacity in about two hours.
Major battery recalls
Lithium batteries have gone spectacularly wrong in some high profile cases.
Sony recalled over 9.6 million lithium-ion batteries in 2006 - four million of them were in Dell laptops and 1.8 million in Apple laptops. This happened after laptops caught fire and exploded. The recall reportedly cost Sony $360m.
In August 2016 the new Samsung Note 7 mobile smartphone was marketed as a large-screen rival to Apple’s iPhone but within a month the company recalled about 2.5 million phones after complaints of overheating and exploding batteries – including phones going into thermal runaway on planes. In October 2016 it stopped manufacturing the phones altogether. Samsung said the problem was caused by insufficient insulation material within the batteries and a design that did not give enough room to safely accommodate the batteries’ electrodes. The recall is thought to have cost Samsung an eye-watering £4.3bn.
What is thermal runaway?
A lithium battery has two major parts, a cathode and an anode which are separated by a permeable membrane. The battery’s power works due to a controlled chemical reaction between the cathode and anode but if the membrane is damaged in some way the control mechanism fails so all the energy can be transferred at once, sending temperatures soaring past 1,000°F in a few seconds, sparking a fire or explosion.
How to stay safe from the risk of your laptop or mobile phone going into thermal runaway
Let’s leave this one to the experts. Here’s the advice from London Fire Brigade.
* Always use the charger that came with your phone, tablet, e-cigarette or mobile device.
* If you need to buy a replacement, always choose a branded, genuine product from a supplier you can trust. There are lots of fakes out there and it can be difficult to spot the difference.
* Avoid storing, using or charging batteries at very high or low temperatures.
* Protect batteries against being damaged – that’s crushed, punctured or immersed in water.
* Don’t leave items continuously on charge after the charge cycle is complete – it’s best not to leave your phone plugged in overnight for example.
* Never cover chargers or charging devices – that includes using your laptop power lead in bed.
* Counterfeit electrical chargers can be deadly – many fail to meet UK safety regulations leading to fires and injury. What may seem like a bargain at the market isn’t worth the risk when you consider that it could cost a family member’s life.